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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Last King of Scotland
The Last King of Scotland
Fox // R // April 17, 2007
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted March 27, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Tense and slow-burning, Kevin MacDonald's The Last King of Scotland (2006) certainly isn't the first movie to embellish history for dramatic effect. Based on Giles Foden's novel of the same name (and in turn, on the life and times of former Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada), there's a modest amount of history and realism rooted just below the film's more conventional surface. The notorious Amin is brought to convincing life by Forest Whitaker, who took home an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his efforts, among other awards; though his performance is the undeniable highlight of the film, several other elements help to keep this thriller firmly above sea level.

Though the promotional art and title would suggest otherwise, Amin is technically more of a supporting character during The Last King of Scotland---but much like Anthony Hopkins' own award-winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs, quantity of screen time doesn't always equal quality. Whitaker's incarnation of Amin looms heavily over the story, even though it's told from the perspective of young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy). We see Amin through young, idealistic eyes, unsure what to make of this charismatic, forceful, paranoid ruler.

Of course, anyone familiar with Uganda's plight during the mid-1970s should know what to expect: it doesn't take long for the cracks in Amin's fa├žade to show through, revealing a man guilty of murdering roughly 300,000 citizens before his exile to the Middle East at the end of the decade. We don't get much backstory during The Last King of Scotland, paving a more linear path that almost resembles a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It's still a far cry from reality, however: unlike Barbet Schroeder's General Idi Amin Dada, it can't be considered an untampered look at a historical monster. Amin never knew a Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan, but his perspective creates a more natural gateway to the shocking revelations.

Surprisingly enough, The Last King of Scotland isn't as grisly and gratuitous as it could have been. The implied violence is carefully restrained during most of the first and second acts; admittedly, there are several horrifying sights to be seen, but we're not beaten over the head with the cruelty that actually existed. The atmosphere remains thick and foreboding throughout, creating a dense layer of dread that can't be ignored. Some critics have denounced the film's typical "white man in Africa" approach (seen also in the recent thriller, Blood Diamond) and nearly cartoonish theatrics, but the conviction of Whitaker, McAvoy and others makes The Last King of Scotland hard to turn away from.

If there's one area that could've been toned down a bit, it's the quasi-romantic subplots of Dr. Garrigan. Though his final love interest is certainly pivotal to the plot, the total package creates an odd imbalance in his character that never really resolves itself. It's obvious that he's a young man simply looking for affection, but it's hard to stay interested when Amin's ominous spirit looms in the background. Luckily, McAvoy turns in a capable performance as the good doctor, balancing the wide-eyed optimism and cautious defensiveness that makes his character believable. The film's atmosphere also enjoys a modest level of authenticity from the on-location shoot in Uganda, subtly reminding us where some of the real-life violence actually occurred. As a result, The Last King of Scotland creates a strong enough base to carry the bulk of its weighty subject matter; allowing us to forgive its slightly less impressive areas.

Presented on DVD by Fox Home Entertainment, The Last King of Scotland is a well-rounded disc that fans should enjoy. Fox originally provided a "Special Screening Copy" with inferior video quality and no packaging; to the studio's credit, a replacement copy was recently shipped out, so this review has been updated accordingly.

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen displays, The Last King of Scotland looks good from start to finish. The digital problems that plagued the "Special Screening Copy" are virtually non-existent this time around, revealing a generally strong image with solid black levels and a vivid color palette. Mild pixellation and slight digital combing can still be seen during unusually busy sequences, but it's not terribly distracting.

Presented in your choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, The Last King of Scotland boasts a heavy atmosphere for such a dialogue-driven film. Dialogue is clear and easily understood, the score is represented well and the film's unrelentingly tense moments sound appropriately claustrophobic. Optional English, Spanish and French subtitles, as well as Closed Captioning, are available during the main feature only.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen above, the plain-wrap menu designs are easy to navigate. The 123-minute main feature has been divided into 28 chapters, while a brief layer change was detected near the 83:20 mark. This one-disc package is housed in a standard black keepcase and includes no inserts...and jaw-droppingly bad cover artwork. What's wrong with the original poster?

Bonus Features

Most of the extras found here are fairly standard, but those who enjoyed the movie should certainly give them a spin. Leading things off is a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Kevin MacDonald, who does a decent job of flying solo during this two-hour track. His comments are often astute and interesting, though MacDonald occasionally drifts into "onscreen narration mode" and brief gaps of silience. Additional participation---especially from Whitaker, McAvoy or select members of the crew---may have spiced things up a bit, but it's still a decent session.

Next up is a brief collection of Deleted Scenes (7 clips, 11:44 total), including "Uganda, 1948", "The Mission", "Good Times (Alternate) ", "Idi's Test / Nicholas' Suit", "The Same Woman", "The Press Conference (Alternate)" and "Stone Leaves / Nicholas Prepares". Available with optional commentary by MacDonald, these clips are mostly minor character moments but still worth watching. The director does a decent job of explaining why many of these were cut for time, though I think the film could've easily shed another 10-15 minutes without losing anything.

Our next extra is "Capturing Idi Amin" (29:04, seen below), a curious blend of history and behind-the-scenes footage. Essentially, it briefly recaps the undeniable influence of Amin, reminding us that The Last King of Scotland was filmed in Uganda less than 30 years after his exile. A few members of the cast and crew are on hand to share their thoughts, as well as several locals of various ages and backgrounds. It's probably the most satisfying featurette of the bunch, though a separate pair of more focused pieces may have been more appropriate overall.

A pair of promotional featurettes is up next, beginning with "Forest Whitaker: Idi Amin" (5:59); essentially, it gives Whitaker additional time to share his thoughts on preparing for the role. Even if he doesn't get the most screen time during The Last King of Scotland, it's obvious that Whitaker did a tremendous amount of work before the film's production. Also here is a Fox Movie Channel Casting Session (8:35), which doesn't amount to much more than a few supporting cast interviews.

Closing things out is the film's Theatrical Trailer, though a more detailed look at the promotional media (posters, etc.) would've been welcome. All bonus features are presented in a sloppy mix of anamorphic and non-enhanced widescreen formats, while no subtitles or Closed Captioning support is included at all. There's certainly some good material to be found, but it's a shame that some of it wasn't presented with more care.

Bold and suspenseful, The Last King of Scotland boasts great performances and a strong atmosphere, though it's not without a few nitpicks along the way. Still, those looking for a stylized thriller grounded in reality could certainly do a lot worse. Fox's DVD presentation is fairly well-rounded, boasting a solid technical presentation and a few interesting extrs. New viewers may want to rent this one first, but everyone else should consider it Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.
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